Nashvillians are used to having to burn a little gas to find great barbecue. Sure, there are some pretty good 'cue places within the city limits, but ask any serious aficionados and odds are they'll point you to Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint (7215 Nolensville Road, (615) 776-1856) in nearby Nolensville. Later this summer, pitmaster Pat Martin will also open an outpost in Mt. Juliet near Providence Marketplace.
For other transcendent options, though, you'll probably have to plan a trip, and what better time to hit the road for a barbecue odyssey than summertime? Memphis is famed as a premium destination, with good reason. And on the way, you might as well seek out some of the rural West Tennessee pitmasters who taught a young Pat Martin the ins and outs of wood, fire, smoke and pork.
One of the last remaining whole-hog purveyors is Scott's Bar-B-Q (10880 Highway 412 West, (731) 968-0420) in Lexington, Tenn., about 10 minutes off I-40 at Exit 108 between the Tennessee River and Jackson. With an old-fashioned smoke shed next to the restaurant, Scott's can smoke up to 20 whole hogs at one time. You can get your pork chopped or pulled and specify either moist inside meat or crispier outside bark. Piled high on a bun and topped with fresh slaw, Scott's sandwich is an epiphany.
Memphis is full of great barbecue options, but rather than taking the default trip to Rendezvous, consider a couple of first-rate alternatives. Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway, (901) 527-9158) is known for their ribs and shoulder sandwiches, but try their smoked Cornish hen for a unique experience. Another reason to Cozy up: The Corner holds the distinction of being run by one of the few pitmistresses in the Tennessee barbecue business, Desiree Robinson.
For a real change of pace, try the BBQ spaghetti dinner at Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue (2265 S. Third St., (901) 775-2304). It's not as big a stretch as you might think, since spaghetti is often topped with meat and spicy tomato sauce; this one is just pork and barbecue instead. Plus Interstate Barbecue is right at the head of Highway 55 if you're headed the "scenic" route to Tunica, Miss., so you can be a winner before you even hit the tables.
If you'd prefer to head north to escape the sweltering heat, set your GPS for Owensboro, Ky., and the barbecued mutton capital of the world. Gamier than beef or pork, mature sheep offer a very distinctive flavor, especially after they've been basted in a vinegar dip and smoked for hours. Moonlite BBQ Inn (2840 W. Parrish Ave., (270) 684-8143) is the most famous spot to munch on some mutton, and you can also dine from the buffet piled high with smoked pork, ribs and delicious burgoo stew if mutton isn't your thing. Or you can go to Old Hickory Pit BBQ (338 Washington Ave., (270) 926-9000) for some comparative dining and decide for yourself which does best with the beast.
For those who aren't like Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield and don't mind diggin' on swine, continue north to Murphysboro, Ill., to the 17th Street Bar and Grill (32 N. 17th St., (618) 684-3722). It's less than three hours from Nashville, and you'll get a chance to eat the meat produced by Mike "The Legend" Mills, a four-time World Champion and three-time Grand World Champion at Memphis in May. Mills is also the 1992 Grand Champion of the Jack Daniel's World Invitational Barbecue Contest, and he won the Jack's sauce contest that year as well. Along with his daughter Amy, the Millses are one of the royal families of barbecue, and they will not steer you wrong.
Driving south from Nashville toward Bonnaroo or the beach also provides some opportunities for excellent barbecue. For you 'Roonie's, try Two Purple Pigs (620 Woodbury Highway, (931) 954-5013) at the Manchester exit of I-24 right across the highway from the festival entrance. Friendly owner Bob George smokes a great brisket as well as some damned fine ribs and pulled pork. For first-time visitors who ask nicely, he'll probably provide a free sample of all the meats to help you choose your favorite.
Finally, Chris Lilly is the award-winning pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que (1715 Sixth Ave. SE, (256) 350-6969) in Florence, Ala., a restaurant that has been pumping out tremendous barbecue for four generations. This Decatur-area joint is known for smoked spatchcocked chickens, which are spiced with their famous Alabama White Sauce. Whether you're a fan of the white sauce or their smoked shoulders sauced with red or mustard sauce, Big Bob Gibson's is worth a stop on both the trip to and from the Redneck Riviera.
So gas up the car, load up on Tums and hit the highway this summer for some memorable meat. And remember to load up the cooler with more for when you get home.
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